02.09.2012 - 02.09.2012
We left eastern Wyoming's barren lands and entered North into Montana, a state whose name alone can stir a man's blood - the rugged dry plains in the east, the Rockies, the big sky.
I filled up Pale Cheeks at Crow Agency off I-90 just off the border. There was a man in a white Ford diesel caked with mud. He had jet black hair and dark kacki skin and he was tall and broad. He had Crow blood and couldn't have been much older that 30. We compared vehicles and talked about the beauty of a good diesel and about where he got the mud. "Up in the Pryors" he said and he pointed to the range on the other side of the interstate, all land belonging to the 5th largest reservation in the states.
At the airport in Billings I picked up my first hitchhiker, my mother. "Isn't this a rugged adventure?"you say. "Where does my mother fit into this?"
I told my mother I was leaving on this expedition a month before I set off. The response I got was the response I expected. My logic was that a month of motherly prying was better than 6 months or a year of it. About 2 weeks before the departure Mom started to come around. She asked me about destinations in the US and the potential destinations points south from the Rio Grand. Among many other things, I told her I had a spot to help on a ranch in Montana herding cattle across the border into Wyoming. Mom really came around and started to show genuine interest in the expedition but I found her to be asking a lot about the cattle drive. She told me a story about a girl in the 60's, a farm in upstate NY, about a pony and about a big smile and a happy memory - and in my interpretation, even unintentionally hinted at an unfulfilled dream. The idea was born.
The ranch had openings and I told her I had booked her a spot and that she better get in horse riding shape if she was going to ride 8 hours a day for 5 days. She smirked at this crazy idea but her face revealed a hint of excitement. She would think about it and pray about it. My father agreed to forfeit the Floridian golf weekend they had planned for the same week. She was still undecided.
Then something very interesting happened, to me more supernatural than coincidental. In response to an email that was probably an over-the-top attempt at motivation on my part - my mother wrote back that she still had to ponder and pray. She signed her name "Annie Oakley". I'd heard the name before but had to look it up. I backed out of the email to go on my way to reference Google. When I did so, I noticed the name again written on my screen "Annie Oakley"-it was my Merrium Dictionary's word of the day, sitting in my inbox directly before the message from my mother. The definition:
The Word of the Day for October 4 is:
Annie Oakley \an-ee-OH-klee\ noun
: a free ticket
Did you know?
Phoebe Anne Oakley Moses (1860-1926) starred in Buffalo Bill's Wild West Show, where she astonished the crowds with feats of marksmanship such as shooting the spots out of playing cards. It wasn't long until her audience noticed that the shot-out card looked like a ticket that had been punched by a train conductor. By 1910, the name "Annie Oakley" was not only synonymous with sharp-shooting but with the ticket-playing card connection, and complimentary tickets have been "Annie Oakleys" ever since.
From the airport we found the stopover hotel complete with an elevator and a breakfast buffet and a short order cook, all secured by a reservation; something Pale Cheeks and I weren't used to but accepted with good humor. Annie had a lot to say about Pale Cheeks when they first were getting acclimated. I was made fully aware of the chance of us blowing over. I always knew if her tires touched the yellow line - Annie had a keen awareness of that. Even found out Pale Cheeks had an extra break in the form of a hand break above the passenger side visor. But Ole Cheeks got us there and we all settled in nicely together and made it to the Dryhead Ranch in one piece, over the Pryors and all.
The task at hand was driving heifers from an area of Montana just east of the Beartooth Mountains and just north of the state's southern border. By the end of the week, about 80+ head of young teenage cattle, all carrying an unborn calf, were corralled onto a smaller ranch in Lovell, Wyoming, closer to town and safe and warm for the winter. Annie and I and the other few guests were taken in as family at the ranch's home. In the evenings we shared in home cooked meals. In the mornings we went to work. Tasty feed laid out inside a gated area brought the horses charging in every morning from the surrounding acreage of canyons and prairies. We saddled them up and brushed the sticky-burs from their manes and tails. Tamed to various degrees by the cowboys, you still got the feeling that they were wild and happy, leading a healthy life out on the range.
Jake and Sky were the cowboys responsible for herding the cattle the 40 miles to the corral in Wyoming. Jake and Sky were also responsible for herding the 7 want to be cowboys (and girl) to the corral in Wyoming. But the cowboys made it easy, and even suceeded in making us feel like they almost really did need our help. They had such a nonchalance about them - there was no "here's the plan", or "snack time is in 10 min" or "anyone need a break?" Instead it was - "saddle up!" and "Let's go we're burning daylight here!"
The first day we rode down a canyon that followed a creek, flushing heifers out from the thick brush and into a gated hold back at the ranch. The second day Jake gave orders to myself and another guest. We were to "go up over that there hill and bring back any heifers you find. Don't bring back no bulls or cows." No detailed instructions, no "be careful of x or y". Was this how they break you in in the West? It was the "they're smart enough let them figure it out" method.
Jake was a wild one. I wondered how hard he tried to emulate everything about a classic 19th century cowboy because, in a way, he was to me very much what I thought a 19th century cowboy to be like. He wore a thick long bushy orange mustache and had a general scruff about him. He had a passion for all things broken in; the longer he had it the greater the worth, regardless of holes and rips. Both cowboys had a thing for their bandanas; not ordinary bandanas but silk ones from France - pastel colored bandanas with swirly patterns. Jake's hat rarely came off his head. He told me a story about breaking in his boots as if he was talking about raising a child. Wool sweaters were one of his passions, a passion that I share. The more bulky, the more ugly, the more ichy, the better. If Annie and I learned one thing, we learned that being a cowboy could still be about the grit and the romance of the old days.
The corral gate in Lovell was shut after the last heifer creeped over the threshold exhausted. The three day drive took us through red canyons and high grasses, alongside barbed wire and over prairies shadowed by snow capped mountains. The weather was dry for the most part, barring some flurries one evening. The Montana fall is a cool one and the winds coming off of the Rockies can chill. I thought I saw Annie riding her gelding along the Hansen Flats (a bare plateau of grass beside a stout mountain range) one chilly morning. It certainly wasn't Mom.
Annie and I and Pale Cheeks pulled out of the ranch with our 6 days of hard earned ranch experience. We left a trail of red dust as we drove the 20 miles of dirt road back into cell service range and the real world. Before the dust settled over our week-long experience we came to a conclusion: how simple life seems to be without 21st century distractions, and not just the gizmos of the 21st century but more the convoluted human theory in magazines, the internet, the media. If more people could just get themselves out into the wilds, we thought. In a way we have lost touch with the primary source - our own eyes on raw earth.
When we hit pavement we pointed towards the wildlife-rich Yellowstone National Park. Annie wanted to see Old Faithful and we decided to risk the longer drive in hopes that we'd catch her. The risk was rewarded by a glimpse of the 150ft geyser exploding in front of our eyes. I'd waited for it to blow without luck in the past - Annie was just plain old good luck.
From the park we headed North, racing against the sunset through Montana's Paradise Valley, wedged between two mountain ranges - the Gallatin to the West and the Absoraka to the East. Annie and I ate our farewell dinner at Ted's Steak House, a Bozeman classic. I'd seen from time to time the Annie side of my mother - but never in such a large refreshing dose. I guess there is a time to be Mom and a time to be Annie. Pulling away from Bozeman Airport, I watched Annie fade away in the rear view mirror. The chapter was closed.
Pale Cheeks and I headed back down Paradise Valley, crossing the world class fly fishing Yellowstone river we buried ourselves in the vast Wilderness area north of Yellowstone. With us were keys to an old forest service cabin that we scooped up earlier from the Livingston Park Station. What ensued were mountain hikes, splitting firewood, reading beside the black wood stove, keeping field mice away from the food, washing dishes in the river out back, questioning the odd noises from the dark woods outside, sipping scotch and green tea...and plenty of time to think about the months ahead.
It could be said that Montana was a noteworthy waypoint on the expedition map. From here we pointed our course South. Barring a few marginal fluctuations, the latitude recorded every day in the log book would descend out of the 45's winter shrinking towards 0's eternal Summer.
Pale Cheeks and I drove out of the lush forested Montana-Wyoming-Idaho corner, past the majestic Grand Tetons, away from the raging rivers and pine-smelling mountain sides and into the dry valley of northeast Utah. From Salt Lake we headed East along I-80 to Park City. A reservation at the High West Saloon made way to homemade whiskey and and a cheerful reunion.
Chris is an old roommate and an old pal from Huntington, now a resident in Park City where I stayed a week waiting for a replacement radiator and tuning old Pale Cheeks. Between Chris and his new friends in Park City, there was no shortage of hospitality. I had access to Jacob's garage and use of Andre's shop tools. Season, Chris' roommate, cooked often and offered much - some of the most simple and healthy dishes on the trip so far. Jacob, Chris, and Mike took me pheasent hunting with Jake's two short-haired German Pointers. The two pups froze with a front paw tucked and nose targeted over any thick brush that concealed the birds. They waited until we arrived with a shotgun. Thus followed feathers and the smell of gunpowder. Much later followed pheasant Brest in an apple and pomegranate purée.
Ironically enough, I left Park City, the host of the 2002 Olympic Winter Games, two days before the official opening of the ski season.
pheasant hunting with the boys
In Las Vegas I picked up my next two travelers. With the help of today's technology, Pale Cheeks and I narrowed down their location and spotted them sidewalk bound on The Strip. We pulled out of the chaos into a tranquil employee parking lot. Picture the backside of a theatre set. I exchanged handshakes and gitty smirks with my brother Andrew and cousin-could-be-brother Jamie. A new chapter had begun.
Cheeks and I had been on the road since the crack of dawn. We left Utah's Rockies with snow on the road. There was no shortage of wind descending south out of the state's wide barren dry valley. Between Cedar City and St. George we rolled down a windy pass of red rock. On the Arizona side, as if someone flipped a switch, there was sun, heat, and palm trees.
The Arizona-Nevada border was different. My eyes were used to the big doses of the long vistas of the west. The two new Expedition members could tell the effect that Vegas' clutter had on me. They teased, saying that Vegas was James' Kryptonite.
We didn't stay long. After the NY Jets' loss the following evening, we left the Venetian's sports book and headed east out into the night.
long hike down the canyon
Stuffed with more gear and her new three man crew, Pale Cheeks arrived at the Grand Canyon. We hiked 2000 feet down into the canyon via the South Kaibab trail and stopped at Skeleton Point, just far enough to see the Colorado river another 3000 feet below. That evening we rendezvous'd with 2 more cousins at a riverside camp in Sedona Arizona. Nick brought along his topless rig, a long wheel base Wrangler he calls Lady Mariana. Pete brought two delicious locally baked pies that he insisted were the best in Arizona. We lived large that night under the stars - cold beers, giant burgers, baked beans, crisp fire, and pie. We parted ways after our 12 hours together.
the red rocks of sedona
Pale Cheeks found a shortcut to HWY 15 via a rocky trail up the red rocks overlooking Sedona. The towering rocks glowed a burnt orange by the morning sun and we all had that life is good feeling that is particular to a morning following a sound sleep. As we ascended out of the canyon we encountered cattle grazing, and further mud and remains of snow on the east side of the pass. The weather warmed again as we headed east toward the concisely named Meteor Crater National Park. The 500ft deep, 4000ft wide creater was created by 50,000 year old meteor strike. Further east we visited the Petrified Forest National Park and further in southeast New Mexico, the Carlsbad Caverns via elevator access 4000ft down dropping us into, "The Big Room" of stalactites and stalagmites. Driving the narrow valley up to the park, you'd never realize the elaborate network of caverns inside the canyon walls to your left and right.
a big hole
There came an end. We raised our glasses of "dressed" Dos Equis at Recess Sports Bar in Corpus Christi, Texas. Our Cousin Billy is a local in town and thought it a proper place to end the journey and start a new one. We smiled at the triumph of the ground we covered (the expedition log recorded 1,714 miles) the vistas we took in, and the characters we met. In silently recalling the memories of the last week in that first sip of beer, I doubt any of us three omitted our adventure at Turkey Creek. When the dust settles and all are happily accounted for, it is the tough tasks overcome that give a team the richest memories. Memories of triumph. And now I must tell you the story of Turkey Creek.
Andrew had researched Hot Springs on our rough route through America's southwest and had decided that the elusive Turkey Creek in the Gila wilderness of New Mexico offered a challenging hike with just enough potential for adventure. This was not your typical hot springs - no parking lots or picnic tables. He made clear the fact that it was hard to get to. The literature warned the reader about remote wilderness, poorly marked trails, bad cartography and river crossings. We cross referenced our hard sources and found that everyone who had been there had a different explanation on how to find the Springs. We dismissed the nonsense and figured it would be easy enough - the first underestimation.
the road to nowhere or otherwise known as the road to turkey creek
We arrived in the Gila at night and searched for Turkey Creek Rd. We doubted our every move. It sounded nothing like the directions. The road we had thought might lead us to Turkey Creek became steep and rocky. There were switch backs. Why were we climbing a mountain when we were looking for a creek? There was no water in sight. We argued as we blead our fatigue after the long day of driving. It was dark and we were lost and when those two ingredients are combined it can be eerie, even spooky, even for strong brave young men like ourselves. With crossed fingers and a flaky consensus we forged on the narrowing dirt road in the pitch black. It descended into a dry creek bed only to ascend up another ridge. Nerves were on high alert and we decided to abandon the hour long investment down the deep trail and sideline the search, with our tight schedule, probably indefinitely. We looked for a safe place for Pale Cheeks to turn around without sliding of into the black below. I got out to inspect and immediately the sound registered in my head - there was a big river below in the black. We agreed to further invest our resources. We descended in elevation and came to a flat sandy trail and a skunk. Pale Cheeks shined her lights on him as he slowly trotted along and we took it as a sign that we were on the right track. Just ahead was the end of the road and a perfect location to set up camp and fire-roast a moral building hotdog before bed. Right beside camp was a "substantial" creek and so our heads hit the pillows with hopefulness, uncertainty, and exhaustion.
a morning accord: we will reach the springs
In the light of morning we could see our surroundings. We were in forested canyon. There were Ponderosa Pines and prickly scrub growing in the rocky terrain. Along the wide creek bank we're white barked Cottonwoods with orange leaves. We spotted an obvious point for a river crossing, right in slride with Andrew's book. Maybe we were on the right track?
While packing up camp we heard a car on the dirt track. Two young forest service workers were slumpt in their light pick-up reviewing their mission for the day. My first thought was "credible information", my second was "Columbus never had help finding the Americas". It didn't matter anyway. They had heard of Turkey Creek but didn't know where it was. We referenced their Gila wilderness Topographic map. Turkey Creek was faintly referenced. It exists! We also confirmed we were in fact camping on the Gila river. Once we find Turkey Creek, finding the hot springs will be a piece of cake. This was our second underestimation.
pale cheek's view of the gila river
Pale Cheeks boldly crossed the snaking Gila River 5 times, each time with more confidence and lighter nerves. The tool was a perfect fit for the job. We were now on the opposite side of the river. Two canyons split to the north, the one to the right had a prominent flow of water. Andrew ran ahead of the rig to inspect. He returned with confidence. For that moment, like a Columbus, he claimed Turkey Creek as our own. The trail followed the creek up, Pale Cheeks at times rolling over basketball-sized river rock. A diversion off trail led us to a lake of them. With the word "flip" on our tongues and all Cheek's cards on the table, we overcame. Shortly after we passed and old windmill that was referenced in the book. The trail narrowed and we secured the rig and proceeded on foot with a light pack and smiling faces. Before long we'd be southing our nerves in the warm waters of the springs. A half hour hike brought us to a sign explaining potential dangers of the spring. Two hours later after coming to realize this third underestimation, we would remember this sign and scratch our heads. Was the spring further ahead? Had we walked right passed it?
One of the websites had mentioned ascending a ridge up the side of Skeleton canyon. I was convinced and went on a recon up the ridge but it only pulled further away from the creek. I remember looking below into the canyon and the greenery that fed off of the river below. Above, nothing but orange rock; far beyond, the stretching Gila Wilderness. I returned to the team with empty news. We had so much invested in the search. The fibers that held us together as a team were weakening and we spoke about turning around for good.
We decided to hold onto the towel. Further up the creek we came to a rock wall blocking our way. Jamie attempted the only way around - a steep craggily hump that showed promises of sneaking around the wall. Andrew and i heard large stones kick loose and thought the worst. Jamie was alive but our chance at finding the lost springs seemed dead. We descended the hopeless pass. Back on the sandy bank I noticed a shadow at the foot of the extreme left side of the wall. The somber defiance in the air lifted with the hope of a passage. We saw light through the narrow cave and after throwing a few stones to flush the potential snakes, we crawled through, another conquered obsticale.
With spirits souring we made our last push over boulders and downed trees. Andrew claimed the water was getting warmer while I thought his fatigue was playing tricks. Soon we were all convinced. The water was Luke warm - there was no doubting it. Our step, despite our bodies being physically drained, was lightened. And then we heard a holler - A clean genuine yelp that could have only meant two things to our battered wits - a rattlesnake bite or steaming water. It was the latter. Jamie had his hand in the water and he wore a smile that said "well what do you say to that boys?".
Water tastes better after a long run. A desert is sweeter if consumed after eating hearty green vegetables. David Livingston, who spent years in African jungles in search of the source of the Nile said: "one cannot appreciate the true charm of repose unless he has undergone extreme exertion." With 5 hours of work behind us, four of which were unanticipated, we soaked like Greek Gods in nature's spring. We had full appreciation for the true charm that our perseverance had won for us.